Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of article covering the 2015 Venice Biennale. For part one featuring an overview of the event and coverage of the main exhibition, click here.
Some of the most fascinating visual moments at the 2015 Biennale occur as countries themselves address and interpret the three central themes put forth in All the World’s Futures. Whether among the shared grand spaces of the ancient Arsenale, designated pavilions within the Giardini or in fading, grand palazzos around the city, dozens of countries attempt to address how the overlapping movement of history, environment and capital resonates within their culture. Most, but not all, countries choose native artists to exhibit within exhibition space which provides an interesting subtext of nationalism to the event.
After strolling through dozens of pavilions and spaces, certain themes rose to the forefront. Many artists engaged with strands of history, noting that time does not stand still and what we consider “present day” has been wholly constructed by all that has happened before. Artists used this veneer of time passage to highlight their specific cultures or in some cases the environment in general. Several countries, the United States included, created modern-day cabinets of curiosities as a way to visually catalog the passage of time upon the cultural landscape. While Australia’s pavilion, filled by Fiona Hall, was the most visually compelling of this genre, works that “stole the show” tended towards visual spectacle to make their case. Here are some highlights of those spectacles within the two main venues.
The tiny nation-state of Tuvalu presented a watery dreamscape equally serene and ominous. Crossing the Tide by the Taiwanese artist Vincent J.F. Huang transformed one room of the Arsenale into a series of floating platforms that teeter on the edge of sinking beneath the water. The installation tugged on the senses of sound, touch, sight and smell simultaneously as viewers walked across platforms that felt spongy beneath their feet while water threatened to permeate the fragile walkways. While the message is overt (Tuvalu will be one of the first countries to disappear as sea levels rise), the way in which the artist makes his point is entrancing.
A small crowd gathered outside the French pavilion, staring at the trees flanking the entrance. I was perplexed until I realized the trees were moving, roots and all! The French artist Celeste Boursier-Mougenot was inspired by the layout of the Giardini itself, noting that gardens such as these are not natural occurrences but created and sculpted by man. In transHumUs the artist creates machine/plant hybrids whose movements are dictated by the low-level electrical currents generated within the trees themselves. In their slow motions, the hybrid trees remind us that in many cases, the hand of man influences the “natural” world.
A sentimental photo outside the entrance to Japan’s Pavilion featured a set of keys reverently displayed in cupped hands. It is a single data point that sets the stage, but didn’t quite prepare the visitor for the tsunami of story lines contained inside the pavilion. For The Key in the Hand, Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota created a vast spiderweb containing thousands of keys tied by red thread to two wooden boats. For Shiota, the keys represent both memories of where we come from and how our identities were first fixed while the boats can connote both our literal passage through the world and the journeys many of us make from our ancestral homes in search of fulfillment. Its an elegant reminder that cultures are not monolithic but continually changing over time.
If the artist’s work or name seems familiar to you, it may be because she was recently featured in a Perspectives show at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery which closed this past June.
The Russian pavilion focused largely on the ways in which color influences our perceptions of the spaces we inhabit. With painterly tones that varied from drab to intense, the various chambers within the pavilion created a feeling of claustrophobia mixed with a moments of manic euphoria. There was a whiff of the political in the air, mostly subtle until you chanced upon this amazing sculpture. Approximately ten feet tall, the masked jet pilot dominated the room, his video eyes darting about searching the sky beyond the ceiling. He seemed to have little to do with the artist’s overarching theme, but as a standalone sculpture it was intriguing to say the least.
Mexico’s entry into the Biennale examined the historical similarities between Venice and Mexico City through each city’s relationship to water. Water has always been the lifeblood of Venice; in Mexico City, it was once a plentiful resource but now has now become precious. Possessing Nature by Tania Candiani and Luis Felipe Ortega charted the changing locations of the Mexican pavilion within the city of Venice as a geometric aqueduct, bisecting the room as it transported water from the lagoon into the foreground pool which then rippled across a series of video images. It purports to highlight the ways in which political and economic power shapes cultural identity. From a political perspective it fell a bit short – it would have been more effective to somehow incorporate Venice within a Mexican cartography rather than the other way around. That said, the creative structure they built to link the two cities was a unique find at the fair.
Ivan Grubanov’s installation for the Serbian pavilion was visually simple yet riddled with historic political complexities. United Dead Nations featured flags of dead nation-states scattered in heaps around the room, the dye bleeding out onto the floor. Though gone, these countries are not forgotten; their memory continues to influence international politics in the present day. Grubanov’s work highlights the ways in which political and cultural boundaries are oftentimes at odds with one another.
Spain came to the Biennale in full camp mode with a group exhibition and a playfulness that underscored the theme’s historical roots. While they vary widely in their chosen mediums, the artists each found a common link within their conceptual framework: a nod to Salvador Dali. By referencing an artist with an historically important position within artistic discourse, the pavilion demonstrates how an artist’s seminal ideas can reverberate forward in time. Of note were Pepe Salazar’s reiteration of Biziak which intertwined Dali with Dada in a spinning assemblage that made music from the concrete floor and the duo Cabello/Carceller whose playful video The Subjects drew a straight line from Almodovar right back to Dali. The pavilion was a much-needed moment of levity in an exhibition tilted toward the ills of the world.
My mind skipped back to Tuvalu as I entered Singapore’s gallery. The countries are both island nations after all, and Charles Lim Yi Yong’s installation also investigated the shifting geographic boundaries of his native country. Yet while these two nations may be similar geographically, Yong’s Sea State shows they are worlds apart in how they view their future. The videos that make up Sea State capture a certain muscularity within the Singaporean culture, as Yong documents and dramatizes the ways in which the city-state’s geography is growing through sheer force of will. As landmasses are subsumed by the Singaporean people for their resources (as demonstrated by buoy from in the middle of the exhibition space), new, built-up land is literally attached to the city-state. Yong’s work provides an interesting contrast to Huang’s installation in the Tuvalu pavilion, demonstrating how different cultures can view future uncertainties from wildly different viewpoints.
Part three of our Biennale series will feature coverage of countries and collateral exhibitions staged in Venice’s historic palazzos.